by Iniruo Wills
(for that’s what I usually shouted in greeting you),
I never told you I first saw you in flesh and blood at Bomadi Waterside one sunny morning in July, 1998. The boats that were to take the delegation of the Nigerian Bar Association (Bayelsa State branch), of which I was part, were preparing to leave for Okpokunou in Delta State for the burial of our departed Vice Chairman, Lateef Okorodas. Then another boat briskly received its handful of passengers and, allowing barely enough time for some of my co-travelers to pump hands with you across boats, stole you guys away into the chikoko creeks whose cause you championed with courage and charity nonpareil.
It turned out that was “the Oronto”. The young man’s frame belied his already burgeoning reputation, but came with a ruggedness that fit his brand of renown. Unlike my delegation who were in our boring regulation attire for purposes of that trip you, a lawyer too, were in bare hard wear that fit your mission into the mangroves. That could have been a Che Guevara, by appearance. Yet, your hardy exterior was deceptive. Underneath it was a gentleness of heart, I got to know, that must have underwritten the generous sacrifice you lavished on so many people and peoples. I was almost relieved to have not engaged with you on that day, the easier to retain in my perception the Oronto mystique. Besides, I suspected we would meet soon enough on some platform of mutual action, and preferred so.
That privilege found me in May, 1999 when we both made presentations at a conscientization session in Yenagoa for some pioneer governors and legislators-elect in our country’s current civilian governance. With a short speech, you electrified that audience, in which sat a future Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and our then Governor-elect, whom we subsequently in turn worked with as Commissioners of Information. As you made to leave the hall with dramatic briskness, we exchanged contacts and since then I gained my fair slice of interaction with your roller coaster life of constant history making.
In prior time and afterwards, you filled us with pride and awe in various milestones of your odyssey. You co-led the orchestration of Operation Climate Change in December, 1998 and enactment of the Kaiama Declaration, one of the most historic documentations of the inherent rights, aspirations and self-assurances of the Ijaw indigenous nationality. That epic put the impervious Establishment of the day on notice and it responded with brutal repression to crush the audacity of you and your brave partners. You mounted the global screen on CNN and replied in booming eloquence. You took our case in person to Bill Clinton at the White House. You thought global and acted local. It was mostly thanks to this awakening change of climate worked by you and the likes of Felix Tuodolo, Asari Dokubo, Patterson Ogon and Kingsley Kuku that the soon incoming President Obasanjo had no choice than to rush a bill to the National Assembly to create the Niger Delta Development Commission. We thank you.
When the same General Obasanjo in a puzzling scenario invaded Odi community in November 1999 as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and I needed as our State’s Commissioner for Information at the time to mobilize strong voices from civil society, you were the logical resort. Oronto, you responded in varied staccato: the blitz of powerful media statements; the visit to Odi by an army of civil society activists – Uche Onyeagucha’s speech still rings in my head, and the special reports by Environmental Rights Action and the Ijaw Council on Human Rights, detailing the statistics of death and destruction in Odi. All these laid the foundation for the justice that the Odi people got in your life time by a court judgement, through the legal advocacy of another irrepressible defender of environmental and community rights, Lucius Nwosu, SAN. Thank you, bro.
Almost two years after I was sacked from the cabinet, I found myself in one of the many circles of action against what was considered a dangerous drift in governance in our precious Bayelsa State. You were soon persuaded to join the movement for better governance in the state. Again you brought your astounding energy, networks and creativity into the game. So were born initiatives like the Bayelsa Civil Society Assembly and the People’s Power Project in stirring up a Pounding campaign to unravel what we then termed Volumes of Corruption. The effort did not culminate in regime change via the elections of 2003. You were later invited, probably for the umpteenth time, to contribute directly in government. My expressed hope was for you to serve as Commissioner for Environment, if you had the option, confident that your enviable expertise and influences would catalyze change in the reckless behaviour of oil and gas companies in the state. I still think that for Our Niger Delta, Oronto Natei Douglas was the best Commissioner-General for Environment we could have had at the time. But fate dictated otherwise, confirming Shakespeare’s reminder that
“Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.”
In the ensuing episodes, whatever the sides they were viewed from, you essayed to show that you were driven by considerations of fierce loyalty, another virtue even in the most controversial situations. I had witnessed closely the most remarkable combination of this quality and that of determination in a different, earlier context. We were on a joint, most urgent mission and missed our flight which was the last that evening. Egged on by your singular resolve, we headed straight from the airport to hire a car in town and were about to proceed from Port Harcourt to Abuja by road, after dark already, when we were asked to call off the trip.
Ultimately and with great dexterity, you played distinctive roles in the production and sustained projection of the first Nigerian President of Ijaw extraction. It was from you I first heard, in the racing hours before the announcement of a name, that there was a (frantic, it seemed) search for an Ijaw man that would be a running mate to the Presidential Candidate of PDP, Umar Yar Adua.
After the many histories made by you, the work of natural resource justice and environmental restoration is not yet quite done. The United Nations’ Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland is yet to be implemented by Shell Petroleum and the Nigerian Federal Government, barely four months to that report attaining as many years of age. Chevron is still dribbling some communities affected by its rig explosion of January 2012 near Koluama. Two days ago, Shell’s manifold was furiously gushing oil onto the road and surrounding farmlands at Imiringi, a few forests away from your native Okoroba.
As you would have said, “the processes are [still] on” in the work of compelling petroleum industry operators and polluters to respect our environment, our peoples’ lives and our communities’ livelihoods. But you did your part, and that is what matters. We work and look forward to the day when our creeks will be clean again, our fishes safe for eating and our mangroves will earn their amnesty from unremitting pollution. Standing on the shoulders of your environmental legacy – one immune to any cancer – we see ahead the day when, if the oil companies continue to be callous and recidivist, the Nigerian courts will order some drilling rigs into recess, in the revelation that people’s lives trump corporate profiteering and governmental addiction to mineral rents. That will be the day, OND …
In many ways, you tried not merely to expand boundaries but to dissolve them between people. We will remember your resounding laughter, from which I sometimes borrowed a note. The early morning debriefing sessions too, at which you often arrived in stubborn khaki shorts on your return from many a travel across the Atlantic, years ago. Of course your wide intellect as well. At the news of your departure, a mutual brother of ours said ” we lost an archive”.
Thank you for what you did for our people, our environment and our successor generations.
As the Officer goes into his final sleep, I say THANK YOU, THE ADVOCATE!
May the Officer sleep well.
Iniruo Wills a.k.a. “Chief Wills” is the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Environment.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author